Where to Shine the Light? Focus on the Right Issue

In this age of short attention spans, leaders’ ability to bring their full focus to a specific issue seems like a positive asset. Right?

Yes, but only if they’re focusing on the right issue.  If not, no amount of problem solving will produce a satisfactory result.

Following Donald Trump’s surprise win in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, reporters reflected at length how everyone (except Trump) had failed to correctly predict the outcome. One major reason, journalists admitted: “We were focused on the candidates instead of the voters.”  In other words, the spotlight was pointing at the wrong subject.

Many leaders attempt to contribute to a solution by identifying what is wrong. We can “zoom” in closer to that issue or get some distance on it, trying to identify the root cause. But when neither of those approaches proves effective, it may be that the light is shining on the wrong thing.

Surprisingly, focusing on what is going well can often unlock new insights, spark innovation, and energize the team. David Cooperrider describes this approach in his book, Appreciative Inquiry. Cooperrider recommends focusing on what is right with the organization (and individual) to solve problems and create new realities.  The premise is quite compelling: If an organization is still around, it must be doing something right. When the strengths and positive outcomes of the individuals and the organization are highlighted, more attention is focused on those strengths. The result is that the staff becomes motivated to achieve more of these positive outcomes, and new skills are built on a solid foundation of strengths.

A surgeon named Dr. Light (his real name) wrote about his own experiences with surgeons regarding the pain in his right wrist. As recounted in Dr. Jerome Groopman’s book, How Doctors Think, being a doctor gains Dr. Light access to specialists and knowledge, In fact, his wife is a physician as well, further expanding their personal network. Yet even with these advantages, he goes to four doctors—all of whom examine his right hand and retake x-rays, even though he already has them. Each specialist diagnosed the problem differently and recommends a different procedure.  They all shined the light on his right hand, where the pain was occurring. Then he went to a doctor who took an x-ray of both his left and right hand while in the act of turning. By changing the focus of the spotlight from one hand to two—and from hands being still to moving—this doctor discovered another treatment solution.

Taking these focus lessons to the leadership arena- a client I’ll call Keith was the Director of Information Technology at his professional services company.  His spotlight was shining on what his staff was doing wrong. He wanted to address this with them, but to compound the problem, they were all on different projects, so having a group meeting did not advance the progress of their personal projects. He had held post-mortems on past projects, but was sensitive to the individuals’ defensive reactions. He was savvy enough to know that each had their own style of engagement, too, making group discussions difficult. In meetings they didn’t interact with each other. He wanted to improve their dynamic without mandating it, which would be antithetical to his goal of their proactive participation. He was focused on what was going wrong. At my prompting, he started the next meeting by shining the light on what was going well. That resulted in a lively conversation, which met his first two goals: learning from each other, and being engaged. Once his light was focused on what went well, there was movement.

In another example, MaryEllen, was a Program Director at a large defense manufacturing company. She was focused on the tension between her staff member Craig, and her manager Vlad. She wanted to improve their relationship and build more harmony.  She tried arranging planning meetings with the three of them. That backfired as Vlad became impatient with Craig’s interruptions and arguments about priorities. She tried talking to Vlad about Craig’s skills and contributions, to increase his patience and acceptance. Vlad was not receptive. She was shining her light on the hope for interpersonal harmony between them.

MaryEllen said Craig was great with internal customers: responsive, accommodating, even deferential if that’s what it took to satisfy them. So I asked, what if Craig put Vlad in the circle of people he took care of, treating him as one of the internal customers he supported so effectively? In other words, what if the light was shining, not so much on MaryEllen’s hope for harmony, as on Craig’s well-developed customer service skills, and he regarded Vlad to be in the circle of those he accommodated?

That made sense to MaryEllen, and it gave her a way to talk about the constructive direction of the relationship without having to call it a personality difference or a hierarchical difference or harmony. It was none of those things. It was just where the light was shining: now it was shining on good customer service.

All these examples point to the fast that as a manager, be sure that you’re focused, and that you are focused on the right thing. Don’t get distracted if others bring your focus to the wrong issue. Step back and choose where to bring your attention, intentionally.

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